Live music review/Fantastic Negrito, April 17th @ New Parish.
If Nina Simone was the “high priestess of Voodoo Soul,” who was the high priest? Some may point to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, he of the wailing baritone, bugged-out eyes, and bones-through-the-nose gris gris shtick, complete with skulls for accoutrements. Others might mention Jimi Hendrix, the self-appointed “voodoo chile” of the psychedelic era, whose mellow hippie vibe contrasted his aggressive infusion of the blues with lysergic mojo. Still others might say D’Angelo, the falsetto crooner whose 2000 post-neosoul opus Voodoo is equally suitable for making love, sweaty juke joint boogie sessions, or sacrificing goats to. Miles Davis might even get a nod for “running the voodoo down” on his Bitches Brew album, a potent stew of experimental jazz-funk fusion. But the current title-holder may be none other than Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito, who has seemingly come out of nowhere to captivate audiences with his reloaded take on bluesy rock-n-roll, delivered with a hefty helping of N’Awlins-style boogie-woogie piano.
Only a few months ago, Fantastic Negrito, aka Xavier Dphrepaulezz, was performing in small rooms like Oakland’s Legionnaire Saloon (as part of the Town Futurist Sessions). Prior to that, he busked in front of Colonial Donuts and at Broadway and 25th and could be found regularly hosting informal jam sessions at his Blackball Universe gallery-headquarters in the jack London Square warehouse district. But after beating out thousands of other unsigned, indie entrants to win NPR’s Tiny Desk contest, which led to a much-hyped SXSW appearance and an SF Chronicle Datebook cover story, the 46-year old Dphrepaulezz now finds himself headlining sold-out shows at the New Parish, attracting a crossover audience who had never heard of him until very recently.
Although nowhere near as dramatic as Hawkins (or Simone for that matter), Dphrepaulezz has more than a little bit of voodoo in him. He describes his music as “black roots,” and “blues with a punk attitude,” and his bio talks about his creative rebirth after failed record deals and near-death experiences (he spent several months in a coma after a car accident and had to teach himself how to play instruments again) which catalyzed into a cathartic transformation following the birth of his son. The concept of resurrection is a central one in African-based spiritual traditions like voodoo, as is the notion of cyclical time and ancestor worship. Dphrepaulezz’s drawing of inspiration from field hollars, Delta blues and early rock & roll is as much as a tribute to the pioneers of American black music as it is a refutation of the superficiality of modern R&B. Fantastic Negrito’s sound is all about going as deep as possible into the soul-affirming paradigm of these music forms, creating original blues without being derivative.
During Friday night’s show, even Dphrepaulezz seemed a little surprised at the recent turn of events which revived his dreams of music industry fame. At times, he seemed to be wondering if someone was going to pinch him and wake him up. Mainly, though, he was content to take his blessings in stride and just roll with his current situation.
There was quite a contrast between Mara Hruby’s somewhat restrained performance at the same venue the previous evening and Dphrepaulezz’ engaging stage presence Friday evening. He cut a strikingly dapper figure in a silk shirt, silk tie, and red vest, a nappy, spikey Afro crowning his head. Like a classic soul man, he was in constant motion, striking frequent poses, turning to all corners of the stage, and doing his own dances when he wasn’t singing, pleading, testifying, or cajoling. He rapped with the crowd in-between numbers in a way which seemed more sincere than slick. Though not as raw or profane as Hawkins, he belted out vocals with a similarly intense urgency, albeit a much smoother delivery. There was an improvisational quality to his performance, like, what is he going to do next? Having finally gained our attention, he seemed determined to earn it.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Fantastic Negrito’s sound would be embraced by a wider – and whiter – audience than was imaginable six months ago. After all, African American music and pale hipsters go together like bread and butter – Hawkins once released an album called Black Music for White People – and the New Parish’s robust ticket sales were a testament to Dphrepaulezz’ current buzzworthiness.
What was interesting, though, was that the NPR crowd was multi-generational, if not terribly multicultural, encompassing both youthful 20-somethings and grey-haired aficionados. There’s also a certain irony in the fact that here, we have a black man as the frontman of a black rock & roll and modern blues outfit, genres in which legitimate voices are unfortunately infrequently found in this day and age. At the end of the day, though, what matters is the music, and on tracks like “Night Has Turned to Day,” “An Honest Man,” and “Lost in a Crowd,” Dphrepaulezz not only sounded authentic, but made his retro stylings seem relevant.
Though Dphrepaulezz is mining a rich vein of gospel-soaked handclaps, talking blues, and workman chants, there’s no cliché in his songs, which balance their throwback framework with brilliantly postmodernist lyrics which blend evocative imagery with self-referential humility. One need look no further than “An Honest Man” – a song which grapples with the realities of dependence and addiction – to see what all the hype’s about:
Now I’m in love again
No this time it’s not with my hand
Every time that I get the chance
I’m a human but remember first I’m a man
You painted pictures for me
that I refuse to understand
Cause I want everything for no reason
Cause yesterday it felt so good
But today it feels so bad
Afterwards, Dphrepaulezz held court at an after-party at Blackball Universe, as he mingled with fans and friends, winding down from the show. The chances that sudden fame might go to his head seemed slight; for all his spectacular freakiness under the stage lights, he’s a laid-back cat offstage who appeared grounded in his renewed purpose. The same might not be said of someone who wasn’t on their third act, who hadn’t been spiritually and physically reborn, who hadn’t learned not to take the adulation of an enrapt audience for granted.
A final comment: while Fantastic Negrito might seem like an anomaly, the reality is the talent level of Oakland’s underground indie music scene is quite high. What artists lack isn’t skill or originality, but exposure. When given a chance to be heard and seen, they tend to win people over, if not blow their minds outright. A case in point was the bro in the New Parish courtyard who couldn’t stop raving about opener Antique Naked Soul’s innovative mix of a cappella vocals and looped beatbox rhythms. Suffice to say that Dphrepaulezz is just the tip of the iceberg; one hopes NPR and similar outlets will discover other Oakland artists, just as they have Fantastic Negrito.